A newly-ordered Government review of proposed live animal exports must send officials to inspect animal welfare conditions in destination countries, says animal advocate SAFE.

Under pressure after harrowing television images of exported cows collapsing and dying in Sri Lanka, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has ordered his ministry to do a review of proposed live exports.

But SAFE ambassador Hans Kriek said the group alerted O'Connor in January to the emerging animal welfare situation in Sri Lanka, which has ordered 20,000 breeding cows from Australia and New Zealand.

Kriek said 5000 animals had been exported so far. New Zealand had sent 2000 cows in 2017. Australia had sent 3000. Australian company Wellard is filling the order and still needs to export another 15,000 cows, he said.

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O'Connor had only fairly recently responded to SAFE's alert, saying he was "comfortable" about the export of the breeding cows and had no intention to stop the practice, Kriek said.

"That was before it hit the media. We believe he and his officials did not look at the situation at all, or not properly."

O'Connor declined to comment.

The Ministry for Primary Industries in a written response wanted to "clarify" that the minister had asked MPI to "apply extra vigilance and do some double checking of current applications for export".

MPI would complete his request before the next shipment occurred.

"No shipments are finally approved until animals are checked by our verification services inspectors during loading."

Recent television coverage was an Australian programme in which MPI had no direct involvement, the ministry said.

"It is of course very concerning to hear of any animals in poor conditions, and even more worrying to hear of people living in poor conditions and struggling to care for animals that are their livelihood.

"MPI has no jurisdiction to address either of these issues outside New Zealand beyond our role in ensuring export requirements for the welfare of animals are met before and during export.

"MPI does not have jurisdiction after exported animals have arrived at their destination. We do not track the final destination of animals. Our relationship is with the exporter who must state the purpose of the export and meet high standards to receive an animal welfare exports certificate."

Kriek said "a proper and thorough review" would involve sending officials to live export destinations.

"Not just Sri Lanka but countries like Vietnam, China and the Philippines.

"The reality is we as a country we are exporting animals to countries with far lower animal welfare standards than ours.

"We have a ban on exporting animals for slaughter because slaughter methods in some countries are not in accordance with ours. But we have this weird double standard because we're still sending animals for breeding that will eventually be slaughtered under conditions which are considered unacceptable and cruel in New Zealand.

"Why then do we say we take animal welfare seriously?"

Kriek said live exports were a very small business for New Zealand but the practice could hurt our ethics reputation with our trading partners.

"It's a minimum business so why are we upholding it?"

The EU had voted not to export to countries with lower standards of animal welfare, he said.

Europe had "a lot of expectations" about animal welfare and New Zealand risked being seen as a backwater without similar ethics, Kriek said.

It was O'Connor's job to uphold New Zealand's animal ethics reputation.

SAFE was trying to find out if Wellard, Australia's largest live animal exporter, had an operation in New Zealand.

MPI records for last year show 17,319 live cattle were exported, 2993 horses, and 239 sheep. Poultry is New Zealand's biggest live export with 2.8 million one-day old chicks exported last year.

Statistics NZ figures for 2017 show the live cattle export trade was worth $94m, racehorses $158m, and live poultry $29m. Live sheep exports were worth $269,000.